Anniversaries are special occasions. They are, of course, joyous times when we look back and celebrate our accomplishments. But, even more importantly, anniversaries give us the opportunity to look ahead and recommit ourselves to the principles and ideals we hold dear.
July 26 marks the 25th anniversary of the day when then-President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This legislation was created to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities, and to eliminate discrimination against them. But the ADA did more than expand opportunities for Americans with disabilities. As the world’s first comprehensive law guaranteeing equal rights to persons with disabilities, the ADA inspired the world to see disability issues through the lens of equality and opportunity. Soon after its passage, governments around the world began writing and enacting their own laws guaranteeing rights and access to their citizens with disabilities. As Secretary Kerry has said, “The day I cast my vote for the ADA was one of my proudest days as a United States Senator. We knew it would lead to great changes in America. Only through time have we come to realize how important the ADA is internationally.”
The ADA’s definition of disability and its recognition of the rights of individuals with disabilities to education, employment, health, transportation, and public access lie at the foundation of the world’s first international treaty on disability rights—the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – to which Mongolia acceded in 2009.
It strikes me as particularly poetic that the 25th anniversary of the ADA falls just days before Mongolia’s own celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first free and fair elections. When you think of it, 25 years ago this week, Mongolians and Americans were both expressing their desire for more equality and more inclusivity. We were both making important “decisions for democracy.”
Given that past, it’s unsurprising that Mongolia is at the vanguard of the disability rights movement and continues to work to expand opportunities for people with disabilities. My embassy has done important work in this area, with the Government of Mongolia and civil society actors, through exchange programs, scholarships, grants, art programs, government-level visits, and alumni projects. Right now, a team from Mongolia is attending the Special Olympics in Los Angeles and a Mongolian disability rights activist is in Washington to participate in meetings with his U.S. counterparts.
When the U.S. Special Advisor on Disability Rights Judith Heumann visited Mongolia in September 2014, she led a discussion of the documentary film “Lives Worth Living,” which explores the history of the American disability rights movement. Eric Neudel, the director of that documentary, has also pointed out that, if we live long enough, all of us will become disabled. With age comes decreased mobility, diminished senses, and intellectual challenges. It might happen differently for different people, but it will happen.
By making sure our transportation, schools, recreation facilities, doctors’ offices, factories, and office buildings accommodate everyone’s needs, we ensure a future where all people can participate fully in society throughout their lives – regardless of current or future abilities. Working towards a more equal and inclusive society, one which enables full participation for all, speaks to our highest democratic ideals. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate these twinned 25th anniversaries of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Mongolia’s First Free and Fair Elections!